In September 2014 I visited Islay with my friend Campbell. Islay is a beautiful island in the Inner Hebrides, some 75 miles east of Glasgow and something of a Mecca when it comes to whisky. We always try to take in a bit of coastline during my Scotland trips, and so after visiting Kilchoman Distillery we drove down to the nearby Machir Bay. Islay has some 130 miles of coastline to it; Machir Bay has a reputation for being one of the best stretches the island has to offer. It is a beautifully quiet, flat breadth of beach which lasts for a mile or so but which seems to go on for much longer, framed in the distance by craggy cliffs.
It was just off Machir Bay that the worst convoy disaster of the First World War occurred.
The HMS Otranto was a former liner, requisitioned by the Admiralty during the War, and it had a particularly unlucky final voyage. Acting as a convoy flagship, she departed New York on 25 September 1918. There were six columns in the convoy; the Otranto was the lead ship of Column 3. To her north was the SS Kashmir which was another, smaller, liner and the lead ship of Column 4.
Six days after departure, the Otranto accidentally rammed a French fishing schooner. The schooner was done for, but not before it scraped down the side of the Otranto, destroying some of the liner’s lifeboats with its masts. The Otranto rescued the schooner’s 37 crew who were added to its 363 crew and 665 US troops bound for the battlefields of Flanders.
Just one day after this the Otranto suffered her first influenza death from the 1918 pandemic; the soldier was buried at sea. One other death was to be recorded on this final voyage.
The North Atlantic crossing actually went well, but in early October a storm hit, lasting for several days. Visibility was severely impaired and the convoy had to navigate by dead reckoning. Eventually, both the Otranto and Kashmir sighted land at the same time. The Kashmir correctly identified this land as the craggy coast of Islay, but the Otranto mistook it for Inishtrahull, an island off the north coast of Ireland. Thus, almost blind due to the ravaging gale and massive swells, whilst the Kashmir turned south to avoid Islay the Otranto turned north to avoid what she thought was Inishtrahull. At 8:45am on 6 October the two ships collided. The Kashmir survived, but the collision had opened up a huge hole in the Otranto‘s side. Water poured in. Her engine fires were extinguished. She started to drift.
By 10am the HMS Mounsey, a destroyer, had answered an SOS call and was in sight of the Otranto. She pulled alongside, trying to cope with the heaving swells, but was dwarfed by the massive liner. The two ships came together four times. On each occasion the Mounsey smashed into the Otranto‘s side in the heaving seas. Each time men jumped for their lives, trying to reach the destroyer’s decks. Many fell through the gap between the two ships to be crushed or drowned. Even some of those who jumped successfully were killed or badly injured in the fall.
HMS Mounsey eventually found herself in danger of sinking, so overcrowded had she become. She set off for Belfast with 596 on board. Approximately 400 men were left stranded on the Otranto, who had hit the seabed half a mile offshore and was now in danger of breaking up. The captain gave the order for the 400 remaining men to abandon ship. Sixteen made it to shore. The following day bodies of the drowned, including the captain, were washed up on the beach. They were buried in a special war grave situated above Machir Bay.
Points in this post (copy and paste the co-ordinates into Google Earth):
- Machir Bay: N 55° 46.925 W 006° 27.375
- Inishtrahull: N 55° 25.942 W 007° 14.274
- HMS Otranto War Grave: N 55° 46.825 W 006° 26.795
- Date of Visit: 9 September 2014